Wilderness and the significance of animal death on humanity in “A Tour of the Prairies” and George Catlin’s “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians.”

I would like to analyze the idea of man in the wilderness (man in a savage state) and how it often results in contradictory reactions from humanity when related to animal death.

While we read through Catlin, we see a man’s high emotion after killing a buffalo. He laments at the animal’s death rather than celebrating his victorious kill. Society has inherited the idea that men are tough and heartless. Men do not give much attention to an animal’s feelings after it has been slaughtered for sport or food.

The idea of wilderness often brings to mind recklessness and savagery. However, what we see in Irving and Catlin’s pieces are deeper, almost feminine emotions. Men analyze the animal in a sorrowful way that would not be expected out in nature where everyone/thing is fighting for itself.

These high emotions towards an animal’s death brings to question whether humanity cannot be included in “wilderness” due to a lack of a “savage” instinct. I will analyze whether men are able to fit into the trope of wilderness and how animal death plays a role in determining whether a human can truly fit in with the wild.

Potential questions:

  1. Can humanity really not have any emotion when killing something, or is it human instinct to have this un-savage reaction?


  1. Would it be logical to assume that an animal that kills another animal does not have the same reactions as the men in these pieces (animals as being purely savage, no emotion to killing)? Does this kind of savagery take up a huge aspect of wilderness?


  1. Should humanity be included as a part of the wilderness? Are humans as savage as the animals which eat each other or do we ourselves just see the action of killing as savage?


  1. What solid reasons can prove that men are a part of the wilderness and can have “feminine reactions” without making themselves look weak in the wild?



15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on October 27, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Interesting choice of topic. Since you referred many times to notions of “manliness” and masculinity in relation to animal death, it might be helpful for you to examine the gendered aspects/implications of animal death and the reactions it elicits as well. You could even take that in the direction of adopting an ecofeminist perspective if you wanted to. Good luck!

  2. Keep in mind that, in Nature not everything is picture perfect like some people tend to think. Animals have to hunt other animals to survive. We humans are not the only ones that are savage. I enjoyed question two. We know about animals but we really do not know them entirely. I don’t know how you would go about answering this question because unless a certain animals behaves a certain way after killing an animal that they show remorse. Question 5 can address if human beings are considered animals. If they are animals then wouldn’t this justify our needs to kill animals to survive. You can juxtapose this to the fact that not all of the animals that are killed by humans are consumed for food but for fashion and sport.

  3. This is really interesting topic. I think another thing to explore would be 6. in what situations is killing an animal accepted? why? Also you talk about humans as savage another way you can take that idea is to distinguish between how whites are portrayed and American Indians and how animal death is viewed or portrayed differently.

  4. Posted by thelorist on October 27, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I’m glad to see that you are using your paper to question the concept of “savagery” and break it down into its parts such that you are able to question it in definition, connotation, etc. As well as looking into gender and specifically the presumed masculinity affixed to savagery, could you also explore why not only humans and animals are opposed in this context, but why, for instance, white settlers and Native Americans fall into separate categories in many of the texts we have covered?”

    Q: “What part of savagery is assumed to be present in Native Americans in texts such as…(Irving, Catlin, etc)? Why are there not only divisions placed between people and animals based upon ‘savage’ qualities, but also between one group of people and another?”

  5. Posted by al002 on October 27, 2011 at 7:16 pm

    Very interesting topic. I really like the question you posted “Does this kind of savagery take up a huge aspect of wilderness?” I think a question you could ask is:

    What/How could man become ‘savage’? And if so does that make him part of nature/wilderness?

  6. This is a very cool topic. I think an interesting direction to take with it would be to look at examples of mans insensitivity to nature in texts we have read and possibly compare those examples with the ones you have listed above. I really like question 3, and i think an important question for you to include would be
    5. what exactly is savage and how do we define it was a culture?

    • Yes, this is an important question that you need to address. This word has a lot of negative connotations, so you need to define how you are using the term. You also need to consider race in this, because in a literary and cultural context, not all humans are considered “civilized.”

  7. Posted by kbudd on October 28, 2011 at 4:18 am

    Animal death has been an interesting topic covered through this class, and I am happy to see somebody using it as a paper topic. I like the questions you pose, and the only one I would add is:

    Does the Christian perspective of man’s “dominion” of the animals play a crucial role in man’s insensitivity towards animal killing?

  8. Posted by lmc908 on October 28, 2011 at 3:26 pm

    I think you should explore the scene where Irving finds himself alone in the Prairies and talks about his sense of isolation. It might help with the argument of man and nature versus civilization and savagery.

    8. If we kill to feed ourselves, should there still be sentiment for the animal’s death? Is there a right and wrong time to feel for an animal’s death?

  9. Posted by teagueoreagan on October 28, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    I also really like this topic and I can see a relation between your topic and mine as regards to the question of savagery-a fascinating topic as it pertains to humans. However, I am very interested in question one though I believe it should be flipped on its head. I believe the base natural reaction is remorselessness from humans–I am positive that early man felt no remorse and that it is not something that is genetically encoded in human nature as it would constitute and immense blow to the evolutionary fitness of humans as a species. If there is no evolutionary benefit in a particular characteristic of humanity then I am willing to put forth that it is an artificial construct made manifest in man through layers and layers of societal progress and that a sentimental response from someone upon the killing of a creature is artificial, instilled, false. This ideological construction is overcome by layering upon it further ideologies such as “Manifest Destiny” and Agrarianism. The question I would ask is:

    9.) Why does humanity have an emotional response when one of its members kills something? Is it not a base human instinct to kill as the carnivorous part of our nature is essential to survival?

  10. You chose a good topic for your paper. I like your third question because it explores animal death by humans and by other animals. To further expand on that question is
    10) Are humans considered animals as part of nature? Is it considered killing or survival?

  11. Posted by etrotta on October 28, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Animal death is an interesting topic because it explores the relationship between our sense of humanity vs our animal instincts. I like your 3rd question about the role of humans in wilderness and whether killing is savage or a natural action. Another question I think goes along with that is “Do human’s find killing savage and inhumane because we personify animals and see human properties in them?”

  12. Posted by michaelmichaelsmith on October 28, 2011 at 11:07 pm

    I agree with etrotta above, by examining our relationship to animals we can help identify what characteristics are uniquely human. I found all the questions interesting and after reading through them all I found, I think, an important question.

    Q12 – How does the killing of animals as sport serve as a way to prove manliness? Animals who live in groups, like lions, often have power struggles between males which usually ends in the death of the less fierce. Would an example like this prove a kinship in savagery? (killing not for sustenance but for power) or would the lack of human-to-human violence for social position suggest a separation from the wild animal world?

  13. Humans have the unique ability to extend their ego out to surrounding entities. For example, the concept of ‘Pain’ as humans understand it is not something that any other creature experiences. There is too complex a relationship humans have with pain to argue otherwise. However, we still project that onto other animals when they are injured or ‘suffering’. My question to you would be what does this situation suggest about the possibility of an ecocentric understanding of environment?

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